The smart money predicts that the film “Lincoln” will sweep the Oscars. Where Hollywood goes, so will go the nation. Here are six lessons general counsel can learn from the 16th president.
No. 1: Mission over ego. Necessity, not vanity, drove Lincoln’s decision-making during the Civil War. Check out this dramatic passage from David Von Drehle’s book, “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.” General George B. McClellan commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac. He was young, arrogant and disrespectful to the president. Once, he even insulted Lincoln and an aide by leaving them, unacknowledged, in his living room, while striding past them to his upstairs bedroom for the night.
“The unpardonable arrogance of the epaulets,” fumed the assistant. Lincoln quietly replied, “This is not the time to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”
Simply put, Lincoln needed McClellan to organize an army that was, in Lincoln’s view “utterly demoralized.” Von Drehle writes of Lincoln’s shrewd assessment: “McClellan has the army with him . . . [and] we must use the tools we have; he excels in making others ready to fight.”
Remember, when in doubt, dial back ego.
No. 2: Salvage if possible; fire when necessary. McClellan invaded Virginia in a brilliant amphibious landing, just like Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Inchon, South Korea, but without any follow up. McClellan implored Lincoln for unneeded reinforcements. While frustrated, Lincoln understood this: Firing someone is easy, but replacing him is harder.
Lincoln wrote to McClellan on April 9, 1862. Von Drehle quotes the letter: “It is the precise time to strike a blow. . . . I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness. But you must act.” Von Drehle writes that this was Lincoln at his best, “combining force with sympathy.”
It is a template of an effective memo to a subordinate or an outside firm: Question assumptions. Provide rationales. Explain the peril. Show empathy. End with direction. Once Lincoln had a more powerful political footing, he cashiered McClellan. But he tried.
No. 3 Acknowledge mistakes. Want the respect of subordinates? Seneca called loyalty, not obedience, “the holiest virtue in the human heart.” Lincoln illuminates the way. And there is no better example than that laid out by the great historian James M. McPherson in “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.”
In July 1863, Lincoln was frustrated by Ulysses S. Grant’s inability to conquer Vicksburg, a fortress of the Confederacy sitting atop the Mississippi, and openly questioned his strategy. Grant acted as his lights dictate and Vicksburg fell.
Lincoln could easily lionize himself (the Confederacy had just been dispatched at Gettysburg) and minimize Grant. Instead, he wrote Grant: “I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. . . . I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. . . . I now wish to make this personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
The last sentence is genius: simple, direct and heartfelt. As McPherson astutely writes “from the moment [Lincoln] wrote this letter, [he and Grant] began to forge the partnership that would win the war.” Real and heartfelt candor. Try it.
No. 4: Demonstrate moral leadership. The legal department’s boss needs to show moral leadership. As he or she leads, others follow. Lincoln did not put the Emancipation Proclamation up for a vote. He conceived it, he wrote it and he pushed it through.
A forgotten show of Lincoln’s moral leadership is set out in Von Drehle’s book. In 1862, there was a Sioux uprising in Minnesota. A military court tried and convicted more than 300 Sioux warriors of massacring civilians. The sentences: death by hanging. Lincoln intervened and, befitting a great lawyer, he personally reviews each file, sifted through the evidence and winnowed the list of the condemned to 38. There was a political uproar, but Lincoln was unmoved: “I could not hang men for votes.”
Want to know more? Read “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End” by Scott W. Berg. The GC’s takeaway: Doing the right thing matters, even if no reward follows.
No. 5: Manage anger. Lincoln’s phrase in his first inaugural address “the better angels of our nature” implicitly recognizes the Shakespearean truth that each person is saint and sinner. And he acted on that understanding.
Lincoln was enraged at General George Meade for failing to pursue and crush Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee after Gettysburg. It was a bum rap. Meade’s army, while victorious, was likewise shredded and in no shape for an organized pursuit. Lincoln’s letter to Meade was heartless, blaming Meade for an indefinite continuation of the war. But Meade never received the letter, because Lincoln tossed it in his desk drawer. He could always place an event in context.
As Lincoln wrote in a July 28, 1862, letter to Cuthbert Bullitt, and republished in The New York Times, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
No. 6: Accept advice. A famous writer once accused his editor of killing his little darlings. It’s a funny line, but that sentiment comes from a convulsive ego. Leaders need to learn to keep their egos in check.
While the Emancipation Proclamation was, in all respects, Lincoln’s little darling, it was not sacrosanct. He freely accepted a key word change from Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln wrote that the federal government would recognize the freedom of former slaves. Seward suggested the powerful phrase “recognize and maintain.” Freedom was not just to be given, but enforced. Seeing its wisdom, Lincoln scratched it in, filling a gaping hole. Listen to others. We already know what we think; we need to learn from others’ insights.
“The Big Lebowski” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar — not a one. No, its dharma was to become a cult classic after its release in the late 1990s. It’s best known for a single line near the end: “The dude abides.”
“Abide” is an ancient word from Greek and Hebrew, appearing 82 times in the King James version of the Bible. It does not mean, as one might suspect, to tolerate circumstances or passively resign oneself. Its meaning runs much deeper, counseling people to be steadfast regarding what matters, despite obstacles, naysayers and doubts. Lincoln abided. And, come to think of it, the word undergirds a pretty good template for GCs. “The GC abides.”